As the European leagues get underway for their new season this week, Major League Soccer is entering the run-up to the playoffs. And with the transfer window still open, we took the opportunity to grab a European signing for a new column inspired by all aspects of the domestic game. This week, Graham Parker, who leads the Guardian’s U.S. soccer coverage and who has worked extensively with fans around the United States in doing so, becomes Grantland’s Designated Player.
The “designated player” rule originated in David Beckham’s arrival in MLS, where an exception had to be made to the salary-cap rules to bring him in. After Beckham’s arrival, the league gradually rolled out a policy in which teams can pay a one-off fee to have only a proportion of a player’s wages count toward the cap (they can carry up to three such designated players, or DPs). The slots tended to be used for European and South American imports, with somewhat mixed results. With that in mind, Graham would like it to be known he’s marginally cheaper than Thierry Henry and just as Irish as Robbie Keane.
Welcome to your Designated Player.
Each week I'll be lumbering up and down the keyboard, eating up payroll, averaging about one good performance in five, and discernibly out of breath by paragraph three. There'll be an occasional half-decent observation, a lot of ostentatious badge-kissing, and a strong suggestion that I've lost a yard or two throughout. Most of what I try won't come off, though it won't stop me from trying outrageous flicks of logic — and when it doesn't work I'll be standing hands on hips and shaking my head at the younger Grantland staffers (whose general mental agility, diligence, and grasp of local relevance make me look bad). Oh, and I may take winter off to do all this twice as well in England. You're welcome.
I'm here to talk MLS (possibly as part of the Grantland hostage-exchange program that sends some of America's finest the other way to talk about the Premiership and La Liga, etc.). Each week I'll be looking at stories from a league that I have come to rather love over the years, often because/despite of its idiosyncrasies.
First, however, a quick introduction. Like most expats who end up following MLS after an English soccer cradling (where, being Belfast born, I was also a minor league expat of sorts), my journey to the league was less than straightforward, and it was indirectly inspired by a truly unlikely figure. Before I get to my road-to-Damascus encounter with Steve Bartman (yes, that Steve Bartman) though, a little context ...
I arrived in New York in 2003 as a lifelong Sunderland fan and, the local sports ecosystem being what it was, a default Premiership advocate. The latter sat uneasily with me. Having attended my first game at Roker Park in 1979, and having somewhat lost interest as a teenager during the dog days of the 1980s (European bans; Thatcher ranking fans somewhere on a sliding scale of humanity that also included striking miners; and to be honest, the less lofty teenage distractions of trying to figure out the connections between girls and music), I didn’t fully appreciate the implications of the Premier League as a market force until I started traveling regularly to the United States from the middle of the ’90s onward.
Experiencing the then few soccer bars advertising “Premier League soccer” was the first time in my then 20-odd years of watching the game that I became aware of the league’s aggressive international marketing of itself as a “lifestyle option,” and the first time I heard a league and its teams collectively referred to as a “product.” Back in Manchester, where I lived from 1989 until leaving for New York for good, the idea of the relative strength of leagues was a discussion that had persisted in various forms, particularly around Manchester United’s quest for the Champions League, after English teams were finally allowed back into Europe after the Heysel ban. Yet it was a discussion that was rarely framed in terms of entertainment value. And personally, the notion of the “beautiful game” was something of a chimera for someone who’d grown up singing “Six-foot-two, eyes of blue, big Joe Bolton’s after you” as the eponymous defender deposited yet another would-be flash winger over the advertising hoardings in the Clock Stand (hoardings, I should add, which were defiantly non-animated in their praise of the Chairman’s car showroom).
So arriving in New York and hearing the mix of locals and expats discussing the relative aesthetic qualities of the Premiership or La Liga, like so many cigar aficionados, and all but a few instantly dismissive of the local game, left me wondering what I’d been missing in my support all those years. Yes, I’d admired the qualities of sides beyond my own team: the 1982 Brazil side of Socrates et al, the flair of the late-'90s United sides in my first adopted city, Zidane’s Madrid, etc. I had even begrudgingly admired the swashbuckling style of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, just up the road from Sunderland, and our bitter rivals. But the fact remained that for me, a large part of the cathartic pleasure of watching the game was not the beauty of the play, but indulging the pantomime of inchoate, impotent rage as Gary Breen (or to give him his full terrace name Gary “F-ing” Breen) lobbed his own keeper before getting himself sent off. I’d moved to the United States at the end of a season in which Sunderland had finished on a then record low of 19 points (a standard for ineptitude they would later surpass), via three managers and even one home game where they conspired to score three goals in their own net in one half. Yet that game, against Charlton, also typified what I love most about being a fan — the stands that day were full of the fatalistic gallows humor of men and women making the best of the almost-comforting realization that this was a team that would always let them down. As one infamous Sunderland fanzine was titled, It’s the Hope I Can’t Stand. Without hope, the crowd began to giggle.
So adrift in a new continent, surrounded by ersatz hooligans, self-conscious soccer aesthetes, and that incongruous mix that tends to embody the expat fan (basically, lost-visitor-seeking-familiars meets boorish house guest), I felt that some essential, local joy was missing.
That said, I had still to make the leap to MLS, and to my shame, I took a lot of the local cultural cringe about the standard of play at face value (ignoring the fact that I will stop to quite happily watch pickup games in the park) and initially adopted the easy position of contempt for the local league prior to investigation. So in the first instance I looked for that sense of connection via the indigenous sports of my newly adopted country — and not for the first time in my life, I would start my search for love in all the wrong places.
At this point I have a confession to make. After 14 years as a Sunderland fan in Manchester, my experience of fan conversations had become somewhat skewed. I had one friend in the city who also supported the team, but for the most part I was surrounded by the blithe certainties of United supporters, and the deadpan sarcasm of the long-suffering City fans (who in their pre-billionaire days nonetheless enjoyed a certain inverted glory as the anti-United). As early as the pre-emigration plane ride over, I’d wondered what it might be like to root for a local side that won with soul-crushing regularity. To my lasting shame, I figured that without history or hang-ups it would be easy enough to adopt the Yankees as my new local team, and I duly attended a few games, watched a lot more on TV, read up on blogs and Times reports, learned names, bios, and rudimentary stats — and sought out local opportunities to practice conversational entitlement (of which there were many).
As fate would have it, though, it was fall 2003, and my attempt at Yankee fandom lasted about seven weeks, until my fateful encounter with Game 6 of the NLCS. I’d not watched enough baseball at the time to truly register the historic import of the Steve Bartman incident itself, though the repeat replays that evening gradually emphasized the exceptional nature of that moment — but it was watching the remainder of that interminable inning that really affected me. At the moment when Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez bungled the routine double-play ball — when the fans’ fears seemed to infect the field — I had a flash of the Philip Larkin poem "As Bad as a Mile":
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
That certainty that a local, shared history — a folk memory — might inspire a team forward, but just as often claim them inexorably back, also reminded me of a description I’d once heard of the experience of standing on Liverpool’s famous Kop. A fan spoke of emptying their pockets before the game, entering the throng and just accepting that you were going to “sway” — giving yourself up to the literal and figurative movement of the crowd, and the whim of the game. Watching that Cubs team falter and the helpless fans watching them sway to an invisible momentum shift, I had a dawning sense of recognition:
“Oh ... I know you ...”
I didn't become a Cubs fan in the wake of that moment, but it did for my nascent Yankees experiment — and somewhere in that instant was the start of my willingness to entertain MLS, since it made me question what I wanted from sport in my newly adopted country. It made me wonder what following those involuntary moments of affinity might mean to me; and how my existing loyalties and beliefs about football might most readily map onto this new soccer territory. It meant that when I eventually did make it to my first MLS game I wasn’t an instant convert, but I was much more predisposed to seek out a personal attachment to the game than I was to arrive with prejudices about the standard of play.
In the end, what sealed the deal for me was the fans themselves. As I explored the game and found them on message boards or in person, the fans were passionate, put upon, hilarious, creative, clued in and clueless — they were fans — and that eighth-inning moment of recognition deepened with each encounter with them. Many, if not most, of them had European or South American sides they followed too, and given the age of the domestic league, many of these allegiances predated that of their connection to local teams, but at some point they’d decided to "earth" their enthusiasm through their local side and accordingly found their enjoyment of the game to be enriched rather than diluted. And compared to my experience toward the end of my time in the U.K., I’ve generally found MLS fans to feel that they have much more ability to define their own experience and voice, distinct from that of the official league voice, or even that of their team. The flip side of global football spectacle can be an implicit alienation within the everyday experience of fans — there was little of that here.
Let’s be clear: MLS has its problems (and we’ll doubtless get to those in this column in coming weeks). It’s also not the be-all and end-all of the domestic game (and as it’s structured, less than 50 percent of the country has access to an even vaguely local MLS side). I’m glad people follow the sport in the U.S. — and given the choice between someone not following soccer at all and them watching nothing but Barcelona, of course I’m glad the latter fans exist (and I’m still an alarm-clock and remote-control fan of the team I grew up with). But when there’s a team on your doorstep, or even your social media range, I think you’re missing out on a big part of what being a fan can be if you don’t entrust just a little bit of your weekly piece of mind to their more or less competent feet.
See you in the stands.